Comfort Food

A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, December 10, 2017

Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

Aunt Fidelia brought the rolls with her green bean casserole.
The widow Smith down the street dropped by a bowl of butter beans.
Plastic cups and silverware, lime green Tupperware everywhere.
Pass the chicken. Pass the pie. We sure eat good when someone dies.

So, sings country folk singer, Kate Campbell. Though not exactly a song of the season, this is one of my favorite songs by this modern prophet from Alabama. I will admit, the first time I heard it, I was taken aback. Who sings songs in celebration of funeral food? But then I was drawn in by the refrain:

Funeral food, it’s so good for the soul. Funeral food fills you up down to your toes. Funeral food. Funeral food

To get the full effect, you would have to hear her sing it, but here’s the point, “funeral food, [is] so good for the soul, [it] fills you up down to your toes.” Isn’t there deep truth here? Doesn’t comfort food fulfill a healing role when we are hurting, when we are suffering loss, feeling lost and alone, longing for home? What are some comfort foods for you? How do they fill your soul down to your toes?

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Thus cries the prophet in the very beginning of Second Isaiah. More than 150 years have passed since the cream of Judah’s leadership was skimmed off into Babylonian exile. Now a return to the homeland is playing out. It is a new day with new hopes and new possibilities. The people are headed home.

In the first 39 chapters of Isaiah, the ancient prophet excoriated the people of Judah for their bad behavior and disloyalty to their covenant with YHWH. John Holbert writes, “Eighth-century [BCE] Isaiah majors in prophetic assault, lambasting Israel for any number of appalling sins, centered mainly around their complete refusal to care for the poor, the widow, the stranger, the foreigner, and the orphan.” He continues, “Reading eighth-century Isaiah is to take a bath in religious condemnation from prophetic people who knew that YHWH was furious with the chosen ones for their continual and unfailing inabilities to follow the divine will and way” (John C. Holbert, “The Unbreakable Love of YHWH: Reflections on Isaiah 40:1-11,” December 2, 2014, patheos.com).

Now a new prophetic voice is raised from the school of Isaiah, proclaiming a different order. The days of exile are over. God has not forgotten her people. There is hope on the horizon. Comfort is offered, the food that will nourish the soul and nurture God’s people into following God’s way.

Whether or not God actually punished her people by totally disrupting their lives and sending them off into exile, we know that such disruption is difficult, disorienting, depressing, destructive, painful when it happens. Even if we have never been an exile, a refugee, or an immigrant ourselves, we know something of what it is like to be cut off, to be separated from something or someone we love, to experience loss. Holbert again writes of us modern folk, “I think we are in fact exiles from our homes and hope. Our home is in God, who calls us to love our neighbor, to care for the poor, to serve the very least of these…Our hope is in the call and presence of that God, not in our GNP, our stock portfolios, our well-accoutered selves. We are in exile in more ways than we can enumerate!” (Holbert, op. cit.). And we are probably in exile more than we know or understand.

How about you? In this season of Advent, where does the jingle and jangle of the holiday season touch your last nerve? Where does rampant consumerism leave you cold? Where do the pressures to perform, to live up to others’ expectations of what the season ought be about, leave you hungering for something more? Where are you in need of comfort and where do you find it? What does hope crests on your horizon? Is it possible that the Light of World might be peeking over that last high mountain?

“Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” What a stirring image! God comes with might to make all right. Gabriel blows the trumpet. The heavenly choir sings at full volume. It is a powerful picture of the grandeur of God. Enemies will be laid low and the glories of the people’s past will be fully restored. Here are thoughts of power and glory of vindication and victory. Clearly the good guys are going to conquer the bad with God on their side.

Only the passage doesn’t end with God riding at the head of an angel army on a snow-white horse to judge and destroy. “See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him…” Yes, but how? “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” Not exactly what those ancient Judeans or we living here and now were expecting to hear. The power of God is not in might, rather it is steadfast love. Ironically, the might of God is compassion, the armor of God is grace, the fortress of God is comfort. Speak tenderly, that is literally, “speak to the heart.” No trumpets blaring or armies marching. The angel choir sings its lullaby over a stable in Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of a poor peasant child. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to all.”

It seems to me that we will have great difficulty living as God’s people and serving God’s purpose if our hearts are in turmoil. Some significant measure of comfort, of shalom, of peace and well-being, is necessary if we are to join in bringing about God’s Beloved Community. The prophet does not promise that suffering, pain, and death will disappear. There is no claim here that all disruption and difficulty will vanish if we are good girls and boys. God is not keeping a list of who’s naughty or nice. God comes again and again and again to embrace with steadfast love, to feed her flock on comfort food, to carry us when need to be carried, and lead us with tenderness otherwise to our home in the Beloved Community.

Another of my favorite folk singers, the Quaker sage, Carrie Newcomer, also has a wonderful song about comfort food. It’s called “Betty’s Diner” and it describes the sanctuary found in all-night diner by a motley crew of God’s children who gather there nightly in a kind of crazy quilt community. Here the comforter is a waitress named Miranda. Again, you need to hear Newcomer sing the song to get the full effect, but she begins,

Miranda works the late night counter
In a joint called Betty’s Diner
Chrome and checkered tablecloths
One steamy windowpane

She got the job that shaky fall
And after hours she’ll write till dawn
With a nod and smile she serves them all

Then the refrain:

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold

Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

Verse by verse, we get a glimpse of the cast of characters who come in from the cold, each with her story, each with his need. All are served – kindness, compassion, the comfort food of midnight communion.

You never know who’ll be your witness
You never know who grants forgiveness
Look to heaven or sit with us

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold

Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly,” speak to the heart of healing, wholeness, and home. In our own time of disruption and difficulty, of disturbance and disappointment, of destruction and despair, let’s not lose hope that God is coming, that the glory of God will be revealed, that the Word will be made flesh. In this season of waiting, watching, wondering, let’s pile the table high with the comfort food that feeds the heart and soul and fits us to be God’s people, living out God’s love and compassion, peace and good will, wherever we find ourselves. In this Advent, let’s commit ourselves to being the people God made us – and needs us – to be. Amen.

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